Ravens' secondary shines

OWINGS MILLS -- Banking on an ironclad defensive grip being enough to secure a playoff berth, the Baltimore Ravens rely heavily on the hands and feet of their aggressive secondary. <br><br> And that talented group will be on display today as the Ravens (5-3) begin the second half of the season against the New York Jets (6-2) in the Meadowlands. <br><br>

With heralded Jets quarterback Chad Pennington out with a rotator cuff injury, Baltimore's encounter will come against a relative neophyte in the West Coast offense: Quincy Carter.

This will be Carter's first start since being expelled by the Dallas Cowboys for a reported violation of the NFL substance-abuse policy, and he'll face the harassment of a roughneck pass rush and a secondary that squeezes space and, quite often, the football. It could be his funeral unless the Jets turn extremely conservative and simply hand off to accomplished running back Curtis Martin the majority of the time.

Headlined by Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, the Ravens have intercepted 11 passes for the second-most in the league. They have returned an NFL-high three for touchdowns, including Reed's 106-yard interception return to set an NFL record for longest interception return to seal the game last week against the Cleveland Browns.

Could this be the best secondary in the NFL? Are Reed, Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister, flamboyant nickel back Deion Sanders and solid, complementary players such as cornerback Gary Baxter, safety Will Demps and dime back Chad Williams a superior group?

"I think we have the potential," Reed said. "That's what we're aiming for. At the end of the year, we want to see where we stand. We aim to be the best."

Opposing quarterbacks have registered a league-low 62.4 passer rating against the Ravens, who have allowed the least points in the NFL (113) for an average of 14.1 per contest.

The Ravens rank seventh in total pass defense, allowing 182.1 yards per game.

At the heart of their philosophy is press coverage, right in the face of opposing receivers, and liberal use of blitzing. Baxter, Reed and Demps each have at least two sacks.

"I think it's attitude: They enjoy playing football hard, clamping down on guys outside," first-year secondary coach Johnnie Lynn said. "We've got big corners that can run, that are physical, that usually use good technique. That buys time for the front seven to get the quarterback on the ground.

"Some people set their standards too low, but we set our standards high. We want to be the best and we're climbing our way toward that goal. I like their attitude: greedy and aggressive."

The Ravens haven't won a road game against a team with a winning mark since a 13-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 4, 2001, and the secondary will be a key factor in trying to reverse that history against a challenging schedule. Their next eight opponents' combined mark is 37-28, and Baltimore remains two games behind the Steelers in the AFC North.

Carter is a mobile quarterback, which could increase the possibility of designed roll-outs and waggles.

He's been prone to lots of mistakes in the past. Carter threw 36 interceptions in 16 games for Dallas, including half of those outings turning into multi-interception games. Under Pennington, the Jets lead the AFC in turnover margin with a plus-10 ratio.

"Chad has really shown how a quarterback goes out and avoids mistakes," Carter said. "Maybe I haven't had the experience to watch or sit there and learn from someone with so much precision as far as what he wants to do with the football. The biggest thing I've seen is that you don't have to make a great play out of every play.

"This isn't my first rodeo. It is important that this football team knows we are not trying to take any steps backward."

Since Brian Billick's tenure began in 1999, the Ravens are 42-2 when they win the turnover battle. That includes a streak of 35 consecutive wins when they come out on top in that category.

Not only do the Ravens lead the NFL in fewest yards allowed on first downs (3.6 yards), they also rank first in fewest passing net yards per play.

"We can't get into the turnover game," Jets coach Herm Edwards said. "Quincy doesn't have to try to win the game by himself. We don't expect him to be Superman, leap tall buildings, do all that, just play quarterback. We don't want to give it away."

However, the Ravens' defensive backs usually win with the strategy of forcing the action and taking away the football.

Besides the interceptions, Reed forced a fumble on a sack of Mark Brunell against the Redskins and returned it for a touchdown.

Devoted to film study, Reed is one of the more instinctive players in the game. The AFC Defensive Player of the Week has 17 interceptions in 41 career games, including four this season. He's notconsumed with garnering accolades, though.

"Ed does a great job of studying, but he also has great instincts to the ball," Lynn said. "His insight on how to hide himself so the quarterback doesn't see him is outstanding. He lays in the weeds, so to speak, so a lot of times the quarterback doesn't see him until it's too late and they've already released the football.

"Ed creeps very low to the ground and hides himself to make a lot of those plays. It's just being smart because he knows quarterbacks are aware of him. Ed is kind of the orchestra leader back there for everything that we do."

With McAlister, the Ravens have a true shutdown cornerback. A lot of quarterbacks are avoiding him like the plague. The imposing $55 million man has returned one interception for a touchdown this season, and teams are tilting their throws away from his side of the field.

"Chris has a lot of God-given ability," Lynn said. "It doesn't matter how big the receiver is, Chris can run and jump with them. He has good hops, good feet and everything you want for a shutdown cornerback.
"Both of the corners, Chris and Gary, are big, physical corners who can run and like to mix it up. Both of them love to come up and tackle.
That's unique."

The addition of Sanders, who's unlikely to play today because of a strained left toe, has energized the secondary. With his high-stepping style, he's intercepted three passes and returned one for a touchdown.The 37-year old perennial Pro Bowl selection ended his three-year retirement at Ray Lewis' urging, and he has spurred healthy competition within the secondary.

"He's lifted their ability to play," Lynn said. "He's also made it difficult for quarterbacks to decide where to throw. The guys are competing with each other. They don't want Deion to take their job."
Often overshadowed by his more famous compatriots, Williams is only 5-foot-9, but has intercepted two passes, returning one 93 yards to set up a score against Buffalo.

"Chad is pound for pound the best player out there," Lynn said. "He's quiet, won't say boo, but he's very smart, knowledgeable and tough. He anticipates things happening, and changes games."

Demps has registered 2 ½ sacks, forcing and recovering a fumble. An undersized, undrafted free agent who walked on at San Diego State, Demps is often perceived by opponents to be the weak link but often comes up big.

"Will has a passion for the game," Lynn said. "Some guys shine even brighter in the game, and that's how he is. His light keeps shining more and more. He takes a lot of pride in his job."

Lynn, who was the New York Giants' defensive coordinator under Ravens senior consultant Jim Fassel until that staff was fired last season, played defensive back in the NFL for the Jets before retiring in 1986.

Lynn said that the communication between the secondary has evolved to the point where a single head nod can signify a deep understanding.
"They're making a lot of plays without even talking," Lynn said.

"They'll just look at each other, and they'll know what that means. It's, 'How can I attack the offense and make them pay?'"

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times and ravensinsider.com

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